First published on Culturewatch.org, 2004.
Lyra is a high-spirited eleven-year-old girl who is growing up under the care of the Master and scholars of an Oxford college . . . that happens to be in a parallel universe. In this other world, everyone has adæmon – an animal-shaped companion which is actually part of the person. Lyra and her dæmon, Pantalaimon, overhear a discussion between the scholars and her uncle, Lord Asriel, about some mysterious ‘Dust’ which settles on human beings – especially on adults. She also hears about the existence of another world, seen through the Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis) using special film.
A little later, children start to disappear from across England – including her best friend Roger the kitchen boy. That evening Lyra is summoned to the Master’s lodging where she meets the glamorous Mrs Coulter. Mrs Coulter offers Lyra the chance to go and live with her in London where she would learn to be her assistant. Lyra willingly agrees but while it is still dark the following morning, the Master again summons her to his lodging. He hastily gives her a mysterious instrument – an alethiometer – and urges her to keep it secret.
While Lyra is staying with Mrs Coulter, she discovers that her new guardian is behind the children’s disappearance. She runs away but is almost trapped herself, only to be rescued in the nick of time by some river-dwelling gyptians whom she knows from their visits to Oxford. At a great gathering of the gyptians in the remote fens of East Anglia, they decide to mount an expedition to head to the Arctic where they have discovered the missing children are being taken. Lyra goes too since she is learning to read the alethiometer – which gives her truthful answers to any question she puts to it.
In the port of Trollesund they hire the services of Iorek Byrnison, a talking armoured bear, and Lee Scorseby, a Texan balloonist. Their expedition heads into the north to find exactly where the children are being kept, but they are attacked and Lyra is captured. Can the gyptians rescue her before some terrible fate befalls her?
Philip Pullman has become one of the most significant living British writers. Author of almost thirty books, he is the winner of several writing awards including the Whitbread Book of the Year for 2001 with The Amber Spyglass. The trilogy, His Dark Materials (Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass), has sold over 7 million copies in 37 languages. Lyra’s story is picked up again inLyra’s Oxford, set two years after the end of the trilogy. Pullman plans two more books cenrted on her world including The Book of Dust.
His Dark Materials made Pullman the centre of some controversy, particularly in Christian circles, since the Church in Lyra’s world comes in for some stinging criticism, and in The Amber Spyglass ‘God‘ is killed off. Pullman admits that ‘I’m trying to undermine the basis of Christian belief’ (Alona Wartofsky, ‘The Last Word’ in The Washington Post, 19 February 2001). Peter Hitchens, writing in The Mail on Sunday, called him ‘the most dangerous author in Britain’ (27 January 2002).
- How did you respond to the opening sentence of Northern Lights (Lyra and her dæmon moved through the darkening Hall, taking care to keep to one side, out of sight of the kitchen. (Northern Lights (Point, 1998) p. 3))?
- Philip Pullman says that dæmons are ‘saying something about the business of being human – it’s not just decorative’ (Kerry Fried, Darkness Visible: An Interview with Philip Pullman). What do you think Pullman means by this? What do dæmons tell us about being human? How would you describe what a dæmon is?
- Which aspects of Lyra’s character did you warm to, and which didn’t you like? Why?
- Philip Pullman says that it is vital that stories are ‘psychologically true’. How well do you think Pullman has met his own criterion in Northern Lights? What aspects of the story are/are not psychologically true?
- What values does Lyra have? Why do Lyra and Pantalaimon disagree over the right course of action in the Retiring Room?
- Why is Lyra such an habitual liar? What circumstances prompt her to tell the truth?
- What role do stories and storytelling have within Northern Lights?
- In what ways does Lyra move from innocence to experience during Northern Lights? How does her view of herself change?
- What kind of a man is Lord Asriel? What does his dæmon reveal about him? How did your feelings about him change during Northern Lights?
- What do you think motivates Mrs Coulter? Why does she have such a powerful effect on everybody around her? What does her dæmon reveal about her character?
- Why can’t bears be tricked? What role does Iorek Byrnison fill in this story? How does Lyra’s relationship with him develop?
- What is the nature of the tension and conflict between Iorek Byrnison and Iofur Raknison? What do you think Philip Pullman is trying to convey through this? What part does Lyra play in it?
- How did you feel about the way the Church was presented in Northern Lights? How does the Church compare with the gyptians and with the witches? What values do the gyptians and witches represent?
- Philip Pullman says: ‘All stories teach, whether the storyteller intends them to or not. They teach the world we create. They teach the morality we live by’ (Carnegie Medal acceptance speech). What does Northern Lights teach in terms of worldview and morality? What values does Northern Lights celebrate or affirm? What things does it condemn? Which of these do you agree or disagree with? Why?